Artemisia as Saint Catherine

Resilience immortalised in Artemisia Gentileschi's 'Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria', 1615–17

The National Gallery, London

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1615-17) by Artemisia GentileschiThe National Gallery, London

In a dramatically lit, closely cropped image, Artemisia depicts herself as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a fourth-century Christian martyr.

According to legend, Catherine was of royal birth and was intellectually gifted from an early age. 

As a young woman she converted to Christianity and experienced a vision in which she undertook a mystic marriage with Christ in the presence of the Virgin Mary. She thereafter took a vow of chastity.


  

However, the Roman emperor Maxentius wanted her for his wife and sent 50 philosophers to persuade her to give up her faith. Catherine converted them all.  

In a rage, Maxentius had the philosophers executed and Catherine bound to wheels studded with spikes.

Before Catherine could come to harm a thunderbolt from heaven destroyed the instrument of her torture. 

Here, Artemisia, as Saint Catherine, gently rests her hand on a broken wheel.

Her little finger rests on one of the sharp iron spikes.

Her other hand delicately holds a palm leaf, the symbol of a Christian martyr.

Alongside this palm, a semi-transparent veil crosses her chest and arm. 

Artemisia's depiction of flesh and fabric, light and shade is handled with great subtlety and skill.

The painting is also a self portrait.

We can recognise Artemisia's features by comparing her with other depictions that show the same rounded face

cupid-bow lips, heavily lidded eyes, fly-away hair

a slight crease between the eyebrows and a penetrating stare.

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Artemisia Gentileschi, about 1615-17, From the collection of: The National Gallery, London
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Self Portrait as a Lute Player, Artemisia Gentileschi, c. 1615-18, From the collection of: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
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Artemisia Gentileschi Romana Famosissima Pittrice Accad. Ne' Desiosi, Print made by Jérôme David. After Artemisia Gentileschi, 1628 (circa), From the collection of: British Museum
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The two self portraits in different guises (left and centre) match a print made after a lost self portrait where the artist appears in fashionable dress. 

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1615-17) by Artemisia GentileschiThe National Gallery, London

But why Saint Catherine?

Many have interpreted Artemisia's depiction of herself as Saint Catherine in terms of the artist's biography. 

By the time she painted this work, around 1615–17, Artemisia was in her early twenties and had already endured many personal tragedies and hardships.

Artemisia's mother had died when she was 12 years old and at the age of 17 she was raped by an artist friend of her father's. 

During her assailant's trial Artemisia was tortured (a common judicial procedure at the time) to verify her testimony and ensure his conviction.

Artemisia also became a mother around the time this picture was painted, although of the five children she gave birth to in as many years, only one survived early childhood.

Recent technical examination of the work has revealed this painting was a self portrait before Artemisia decided to turn the picture into a depiction of Catherine by adding the crown, halo, palm and spiked wheel.

It may be that a patron requested a portrait of the artist as the saint. 

Artemisia's self portraits were much in demand during her years in Florence (1613–20). 

Artemisia's singular status as a successful female artist made her the object of admiration and fascination. A depiction of the painter as the youthful, resilient and intellectual Saint Catherine would have made this painting very appealing to Florentine collectors. 

Today, Artemisia's powerful physical and psychological presence in this self portrait – as well as the courage and resilience of her life story – make a deep impression on visitors to the National Gallery. 

The picture was acquired for the National Gallery in 2018. Curator Letizia Treves explains what her arrival has meant.

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